“Young Goodman Brown” and History
Q. D. Leavis states that “perhaps the persecuting aspect of their way of life was peculiarly present to Hawthorne because of the witch-hanging judge and the Quaker-whipping Major among his ancestors” (30). This is a reference to one instance of historical allusion in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” This essay will explore a variety of historical incidences referred to in this short story.
Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states:
William Hathorne was a colonial magistrate involved in the persecution of Quakers, another Protestant religious group. Hawthorne later described him as “grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned,” a hard, dark man. His son John Hathorne was well known as a Puritan judge who condemned women as witches in 1692 during the Salem witchcraft trials, and who later expressed no remorse for his actions. . . . Of his ancestors, especially Judge John, Hawthorne later said, “I . . . hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them . . . may be now and henceforth removed (14).
Reference to these forbears of Goodman Brown is made in a notable episode in “Young Goodman Brown” when the devil responds to Brown’s assertion of his family’s Christian past: “We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs.
And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept"- The devil then responds:
"Such company, thou wouldst say," observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. "Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight.
Notice the allusion to the historical episode from Hawthorne’s life mentioned by Leavis and Swisher above. In addition to the Quaker incident from the author’s past, there is also the tragedy of the witch-hanging judge in his past, also mentioned by Leavis and Swisher above. Wagenknecht states in Nathaniel Hawthorne that, of the three Salem women mentioned in “Young Goodman Brown,” two of these were hanged; all three were accused in 1692 (60). Wagenknecht continues: “When the devil speaks of his intimacy with Brown’s ancestors and of their cruelty toward Quakers and Indians, Hawthorne is clearly thinking of his own forbears” (60). Thus it is seen that the historicity of these short story episodes is well established.
A proper, accurate interpretation of “Young Goodman Brown” depends on the reader’s...